MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir, and this week we're gonna make it to heaven and light up the sky like a flame with a show about fame. In just a bit, we'll hear a local musician's take on the typical rock star dreams of fame and fortune. And we'll visit a bar that may not be famous, but it has a very dedicated following, as we continue our series, "D.C. Dives."
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
But first, in April, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History stumbled upon a most remarkable find. It was a wax cylinder recording from April, 1885. And as you're about to hear, it's fuzzy, but the speaker is famous.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
In case you couldn't make it out, that voice...
MR. RICK FOUCHEUX
Hear my voice.
...belongs to a renowned Washingtonian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one Alexander...
The one snippet of his voice that we do have on the recently discovered Smithsonian wax recordings have him sounding a bit theatrical.
Speaking of theatrical, this is actor Rick Foucheux.
But, I doubt that he spoke that way all the time. Mabel, I'll have oatmeal this morning. But, when he stood on stage, probably, he sounded a little bit like that.
And, in fact, soon he will be standing on stage, in a way, as the National Geographic Society continues its 125th anniversary celebration with its first ever, full blown theatrical production, a one man show titled, "Bell." Rick Foucheux is playing the title role, and he wants everyone to know he won't just be yammering about the telephone. You know, the groundbreaking invention Alexander Graham Bell patented in 1876?
We're so enamored of Bell as the telephone man. That's who we think of him as. But, he had a lot more going than that.
And yet, says Jeremy Skidmore, who's directing "Bell," few people are aware of it. In fact, until this show, Skidmore himself was in the dark about Bell's non telephonic achievements. He didn't know, for instance, that Bell invented a precursor to the iron lung after his infant son died from a breathing disorder.
MR. JEREMY SKIDMORE
I didn't know that he was in the fight to invent the first airplane, and the airplane that he did build flew faster and higher than any of the airplanes that existed at the time.
Nor did he know how passionate Bell was about hearing, speech, and working with the deaf community. Bell actually met his deaf wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, when he was hired as her speech tutor. And it was Mabel who brought about something else Skidmore had never known about Bell.
I didn't know that he was the second president of National Geographic.
Indeed. Bell's father-in-law, Gardiner Green Hubbard, was the first president of the National Geographic Society. And when Hubbard died in 1897, Mabel convinced her husband to take over an organization that was, in truth, kind of a mess.
MR. JIM LEHRER
The National Geographic only had a thousand members. The magazine wasn't being read by very many people. It wasn't a success.
Jim Lehrer wrote "Bell," and yes, that's the same Jim Lehrer from PBS News Hour and the presidential debates. He writes novels and memoirs, too. Quite the Renaissance man. But anyway, Lehrer says Alexander Graham Bell turned the National Geographic Society around. First, he hired a bright young kid named Gilbert Grosvenor...
Bert, they called him at the time. He was just a kid.
...to edit the society's magazine.
And that's when the magazine really took off.
Then Bell helped open up the society's membership so anybody could join.
Up to that point, it was pretty much a closed society. It was kind of for rich people who wanted to take long trips. You know, that kind of stuff. All of the momentum began with Alexander Graham Bell in cooperation with this young kid who eventually ended up marrying Bell's daughter.
And indeed, the Grosvenors and the Bells have been intertwined in Washington ever since. Fun fact to ponder next time you're at the Grosvenor stop on the Red Line. But, one of Jim Lehrer's favorite little known stories about Alexander Graham Bell has to do with his invention of the metal detector in 1881.
And how he tried to save the life of James Garfield who had been shot, and they couldn't figure out where the bullet was. So, Alexander Graham Bell decided to create a device to use on Garfield in the White House in bed, suffering badly.
But, says Lehrer, Bell's metal detector didn't work on the President.
He believed that the reason it didn't work was because he was on a mattress where there were metal springs under it. Every time they tried it, there was a humming sound and he finally figured it out, but the doctors wouldn't let him move him. They wouldn't let him try.
The President eventually died, of course. Bell was devastated, but in 1882 he concluded that "the death of President Garfield and the subsequent post mortem examination proved that the bullet was at too great a distance from the surface to have affected our apparatus." In any case, it's an amazing story, and just one of the many amazing stories Jim Lehrer uncovered as he conducted research for his play.
There was a discovery stage in each case that was really fun. Oh my God, I didn't know that. And, of course, that's journalism. That comes from journalism. Oh my goodness, I didn't know that.
And, granted, some of these discoveries were about the more controversial sides of Alexander Graham Bell. Again, actor Rick Foucheux.
In the deaf community, there are some people who think he's anything but a hero because of his methods of speech education for the deaf. He thought something called Oralism, or visible speech, would be better for the deaf community, much more than sign language. And, I think he stood in the way of the development of that.
When it all comes down to it, Foucheux says, Bell the man was, after all, just a guy. And "Bell" the play portrays him as just a guy, albeit a guy...
Who was full of ideas and full of life. He couldn't sit still, and he was excited about finding better ways to do things. To design things to make life better for us all.
"Bell" runs September 12th through the 21st at the National Geographic Society in northwest D.C. with a special performance interpreted in American Sign Language on September 14th. For more information, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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